Column: Three chords and the truth
The bend of a guitar string, the soft drop of a violin bow and the nasal vibrato of a local voice: country music is the language of rural America. Once the anthem of the working class, it has become the calling card of conservative America.
The genre emerged from the Appalachians on the tail of bluegrass and folk music. At the end of the 19th century, when immigrants from all over the world found homes in the United States, they brought with them their own unique folk traditions. In the South, these musical styles mixed with white, black and indigenous rural traditions to create the models for what we know today as country music.
Songwriter Harlan Howard once infamously defined country music as “three chords and the truth.” A simplistic musical style which, between the melodies, is loaded with candor. Cape Cod-born, Nashville-based country artist Morgan Johnston can attest to this.
“Country music has a special way of connecting with the interior of people’s lives. [and] the way they tell stories, ”she said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel.
Despite the roots of country music, time has given the genre new meaning. Cold War folk artists, many of whom sang from the perspective of the working class, have been accused of sedition at a time when the proletarian revolution and the red fear dictated foreign policy. These folk singers were renamed “country” to avoid persecution. In the 1990s, there were more country music radio stations than any other genre.
But no historical event has had such a lasting impact on gender as the terrorist attacks of September 11. As the political landscape of the country has undergone unprecedented changes, country music has become a place of manifestation of these changes.
A country shaken by extremism and the threat of foreign attacks, has rallied to its fundamental principles, as any suspicion of disloyalty has had social and legal consequences.
The post 9/11 political climate discouraged dissent of all kinds, even at the risk of silencing valid criticism of the United States and its wartime efforts against Iraq. September 11 rationalized country music as a vehicle for patriotism, but it also punished protests at the same time.
Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Chicks, the country girl group then known as Dixie Chicks, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News in 2002 that Toby Keith’s song, “Courtesy Of the Red, White & Blue, ”was dangerous and under-informed.
“I hate it. It’s ignorant and it makes country music seem ignorant,” she said in the interview. “It targets a whole culture… and not just bad people who have done bad things. You have to be tactful.”
Keith retaliated by posting a falsified image of Maines snuggling up to Saddam Hussein, the then Iraqi president, on the jumbotron of his tour. Keith’s reaction illustrated the perceived link between dissent and betrayal that arose in post-9/11 America.
The chicks sadly began to don “FUTK” shirts, jokingly representing “friends united in kindness” or “freedom, understanding, truth and knowledge”. However, Maines later admitted that the acronym stood for “F — you Toby Keith”.
At a concert in London in 2003, Maines said she was “ashamed that the President of the United States [was] from Texas. His opposition to President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war virtually ended the Chicks’ career. In a nutshell, the Chicks have fallen out of favor – certified diamond albums to the blacklist of country radio.
The Chicks became the first example of Internet “cancellation”, with both their reputation and their careers in jeopardy. A wave of conservatism that had embraced the country after 2001 seeped into the industry itself and created new rules as to who could be a star in the country.
These rules punished vocal progressive women like the Chicks. Women would not reemerge in the traditional country until the early 2010s, with artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile.
Morgan Johnston says she has felt supported by men and other women in the industry who recognize the longstanding obstacles women have faced in order to be successful in modern country music. Over the past five years, Johnston says she has seen a resurgence of advocacy for women in the industry.
However, the growing presence of women in the country has not meant less variety in the political affiliations of gender performers.
George Floyd’s murder sparked a series of gradual name changes, including the Chicks – erasing their ties to “Dixie” – and Lady A – erasing their ties to pre-Civil War America, regardless of the scandal that would arise later with the pre-civil war. -the existing black singer Lady A.
Several country and public musicians, but not all, still have racist and sexist prejudices. Following the Morgan Wallen scandal in February, in which he was filmed drunk speaking racial slurs, Wallen has become more popular than before. Instead of suffering retaliation, his new album skyrocketed the charts and arguably performed better than initially expected.
Compare Wallen’s treatment, following a political controversy, to that of the Chicks almost two decades earlier.
Ian McConnell, another Nashville artist whose style leans towards pop and rock, notes how the country music industry is not ripe for change. The genre, explains McConnell, has a very focused demographics.
Over the past two decades, this demographic has been increasingly conservative America. Music and artists have bowed to the wishes of this audience, even if it means excluding people of color and women of the historically diverse genre.
“I think there is a wonderful talk about race in music and misogyny in the industry,” McConnell said. “I think the more we talk about it, the more the target audience will change.”
Women have once again found a prominent voice in the genre, but black country artists like Darius Rucker are still criticized for openly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Like many in the industry today, we hope that country music will return to its diverse roots, serving not only a conservative white middle class, but also the diverse ethnic and racial traditions of the American working class.
In the meantime, the genre that has turned to pop, rock and blues now leans too often to the right.
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